Jean-Michel Basquiat, a trailblazing artist of the late 20th century, emerged from the vibrant and gritty streets of New York in the 1980s. He rapidly became a force to be reckoned with, asserting his place in a predominantly white art world. His explosive, raw talent resonated deeply with a generation yearning for change, pulling from a myriad of inspirations including African culture, political issues and his own personal experiences.
More than just a painter, Basquiat was a multi-faceted figure intertwined with the music and fashion scenes of his time. It was in fashion, particularly streetwear, where his legacy found an unexpected home.
Basquiat's singular painting style, characterised by his use of symbols, cryptic texts, and ‘primitive’ figures, became synonymous with rebellion, freedom, and authenticity. Streetwear brands, influenced by his artistry, began incorporating similar themes and designs into their apparel. His audacious colour choices, scratchy lines and poignant subject matter became emblematic motifs in urban fashion.
Even after his untimely passing, Basquiat's impact remained evident. Designers and brands, from luxury fashion houses to underground labels, have continually paid homage to his genius, solidifying his position not just as an artist but as a revolutionary influencer in the world of fashion.
Basquiat was born in 1960 in Brooklyn, New York. He was a self-taught artist whose work was a fusion of poetry, graffiti and expressionism. He rose to fame in the late 1970s, becoming a pioneer of street art before his life was tragically cut short in 1988.
During his life, he was a keen fashion enthusiast. Known for his strong sense of personal style, combining high and low fashion, he was famous for painting in Armani suits – treating it as he would any other t-shirt or two-dimensional canvas. In the final year of his life, Basquiat even walked the Spring/Summer 1987 show for the brand Comme Des Garçons. Despite his brief career, Basquiat's impact on fashion and streetwear is undeniable, with his characteristically raw style and provoking messages resonating with urban culture. Streetwear, known for its countercultural origins and focus on self-expression, found a natural kinship with Basquiat’s art.
The connection between Basquiat’s and streetwear goes beyond aesthetics, with both sharing a rebellious spirit. As an outsider who challenged the traditional boundaries of the art world, his message of defiance and self-determination resonates with the streetwear community’s eternal quest for individualism and authenticity.
Following his death, Basquiat’s estate has long partnered with the licensing and marketing agency Artestar to ensure that his signature imagery, graffiti heads and archetypal symbols would live on for decades. This has made Basquiat a beloved and habitual collaborator with fashion labels at several price points, especially as the culture of collaborative fashion work has taken off with the rise of streetwear. This is especially true in recent years, as several collections have featured Basquiat's artwork and bridged the gap between art and streetwear fashion. These collaborations often involve the use of Basquiat's signature design elements, such as his crown motif, scribbled texts and fragmented images that have a distinctly edgy appeal. The popularity of these collections among streetwear enthusiasts is a testament to the enduring impact of Basquiat's art and its relevance in contemporary fashion.
Notable examples of collaborations include Uniqlo, Supreme, Off-White, Reebok, Casetify and Dr. Martens. Famously, in 2021, fashion house Yves Saint Laurent paid homage to Basquiat by releasing a capsule collection to coincide with an exhibition of original Basquiat works in the Saint Laurent Rive Droite stores in Paris and Los Angeles. The drop featured varied pieces including tote and cross-body bags, a backpack, t-shirts, phone cases, posters and a skimboard and skateboard triptych. The latter items in particular reflect Basquiat’s appeal to a young, urban audience that is interested in these types of hobbies – this can once more be seen in his collaboration with skateboard brand TheSkateRoom.
Some collaborations have been more successful than others, with critics and fans praising those that stay true to Basquiat's artistic vision and ethos. In contrast, collaborations that seem to only capitalise on his name without capturing his essence or messaging often receive backlash for commodifying the artist’s legacy. One recent example of a questionable partnership is the use of his artwork Equals Pi within Tiffany & Co adverts and advent calendars. His former studio assistant criticised the use, claiming “they wouldn’t have let Jean-Michel into a Tiffany’s if he wanted to use the bathroom or if he went to buy an engagement ring and pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket.”
An array of Basquiat-inspired clothing and accessories are available in the market, catering to various tastes and preferences. From high-end designer collaborations to more affordable options, his art and message have found their way onto diverse products, reflecting his widespread appeal and influence. These range from apparel – such as t-shirts, hoodies, jackets and sweatshirts – to footwear, decor and accessories.
In accordance with the artist’s legacy of democratisation, the price range for these items varies, with luxury brands commanding higher prices while more affordable options cater to a wider audience. You can find current collaborations on most brands’ websites, but many previous high-end collaborations with the artist fetch good prices on the secondary market. Additionally, online marketplaces like Etsy and Depop also offer a platform for independent designers to create and sell unique Basquiat-inspired pieces.
The cultural significance of Basquiat's art and message in streetwear culture cannot be overstated. As an artist who emerged from the streets of New York City, his work resonated with the urban youth and the countercultural spirit that is inherent in the streetwear movement. Basquiat’s themes of identity, power and cultural resistance resonate with the values of the community, holding great significance in streetwear culture.
As we have seen, Basquiat's art and message have been reinterpreted and reimagined in streetwear fashion in various ways. Many streetwear brands and designers have used Basquiat's art and message to address social and political issues, particularly those relating to race and identity such as racial inequality and police brutality. By incorporating Basquiat's art and message into their designs, streetwear brands not only celebrate his artistic legacy but also contribute to the ongoing dialogue about social justice and activism.
As streetwear continues to evolve, the impact of Basquiat's legacy on future generations of streetwear enthusiasts is immense. By embracing Basquiat's ethos, streetwear designers and brands can continue to push the boundaries of creativity, incorporating powerful social and political messages into their work and inspiring a new generation of activists and change-makers.
Basquiat’s cultural significance in streetwear lies in its ability to inspire self-expression, defiance and a commitment to social change. As brands and designers reinterpret and reimagine his work, they ensure that Basquiat’s legacy will continue to influence and shape the streetwear community for generations to come.
Basquiat's legacy in streetwear culture is defined by his distinctive artistic style and by the powerful messages that his art conveys, reflecting the values and ideals of the communities that embrace it. His influence on streetwear is evident in the numerous collaborations and collections featuring his artwork, as well as in the countless independent designers and art enthusiasts who draw inspiration from his work.
Basquiat's legacy extends beyond fashion, as it serves as a reminder of the importance of activism and the need to challenge obsolete societal norms. The intersection of art, fashion and social activism is a crucial aspect of streetwear culture that will surely continue to be explored and celebrated. We encourage you to delve deeper into the world of Basquiat’s art and to support brands and designers who are inspired by his work and committed to his message. By doing so, we can contribute to the ongoing dialogue about the role of art in society and help preserve the rebellious spirit of Basquiat's work.